LeBron James 2014 Free Agency: Learning from the Past


Feb 16, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Eastern Conference forward LeBron James (6) of the Miami Heat tries to take the ball away from guard Kyrie Irving (2) of the Cleveland Cavaliers during practice for the 2013 NBA all star game at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals comes to a close, with the Miami Heat pounding the Indiana Pacers in Game 7 of their highly contested series, the NBA world looks forward to the upcoming finals between the Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. Unfortunately for all of those connected with the Cleveland Cavaliers we have long moved on to looking towards the future. With the lucky bounce of a few fortunate ping pong balls the Cavs are in the drivers seat with the #1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Options continued to be talked about, wrote about and rumored about what the Cavs will do with that pick, as well as the #19 and their 2 high Second Round picks. Needless to say when you have the 3rd worst record in the league the future is much more positive to talk about then the past.

However in this case the past and the future may very well be intertwined. While some in the local media have gone out of their way to ignore, downplay or blow off the possible return of LeBron James to the Cavaliers in the summer of 2014, when he has a opt out clause in his contract, it is important to take the time to analyze and address this possibility. Today will address what we learned from Lebron’s decision to leave Cleveland the first time and look at what factors that are in progress today could impact his decision in 2014. The assumption is also that he will exercise his opt out clause if for no other reason then to give himself options, and possibly to procure a raise and a longer term contract with the team he chooses.

Factors in The Decision

Looking back on LeBron’s original decision to leave Cleveland to join Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami its clear that talent upgrade was the biggest reason. James had spent his time in Cleveland with a cast that would best be described as adequate. His presence, play-making and talent turned players, such as Mo Williams, into fringe All-Stars. The best way to judge the “talent” around LeBron is to look at their success when moving on to another team or after James left. Players like Williams, Sasha Pavlovic, Damon Jones, Ira Newble, JJ Hickson, Daniel Gibson and countless others saw career years with James and when parted from him have either languished in obscurity or are out of the league. In order to attempt to suppliment the talent base around James Dan Gilbert and his front office traded for veteran players such as Shaq, Antwan Jamison and Ben Wallace. While these trades showed a commitment to trying to win now and bring in talent, they also were aging players whose best days were behind them and were available to be had by the Cavs for a reason, or reasons. These trades also often cost the Cavs their 1st round draft picks, low as they may be, that could of provided James with a young athletic core. The only first rounder that made an impact was exactly that, young and athletic and looked to be a breakout star with James, JJ Hickson. Following James departure Hickson was traded to the Kings and later released by them. His “resurgence” in Portland is no where near the ceiling many fans and some front office executives imagined for him while with James.

Factors in the Now

All of the above, as well as his friendship and opportunity to team up with Wade and Bosh led LeBron to Miami where he has made the NBA Finals 3 years in a row and has a chance for a 2nd NBA Championship. In a perfect world for James he could enter 2014 Free Agency fresh off a 3 peat with the team he helped assemble. During his time in Miami his public persona has gone through the ringer only to come out the other-side brighter then it was while in Cleveland. From hated villan to conquering hero last year to the undisputed best player in the league; there are no longer questions of his talent, willingness to compete or ability to win the big one. The biggest knock on James now is related to his tendency to flop and regular complaining to the officials, but both of these were noticeable while a Cavalier as well. Yet, just like we are able to do while looking back on his decision to leave Cleveland, there are factors with his current team that may help direct his decision making process come 2014. The two issues that presented themselves in the Pacers Eastern Conference Final series are two of the issues that may impact his future decision: Age and Size.

Just like in Cleveland his surrounding cast is getting older, were available for a reason and have their limitation. This was expected when the Big Three got together as their big salaries wouldn’t allow for many free agent acquisitions except for veterans looking for a chance at a ring. They also traded away many of their 1st round picks, all be it very low picks, to Toronto and Cleveland as a part of acquiring James and Bosh. Their one 1st rounder, Norris Cole a Daniel Gibson type player, has shown some flashes of talent, but so did Hickson with James. Yet neither of these seemed to be problematic as having Bosh and Wade by his side would more then make up for those limitations, or so it was thought. Now Wade is looking like a very old 32 year old, like maybe 36 year old, and Bosh’s thin frame has shown its frailty as well. Wade’s knees have been a problem for the past 2 years severely limiting his athletic explosion. While he is still capable of nights like last night, his “breakout” game included only 21 points, those look to be becoming fewer and farther between. Bosh’s ankles and other ailments have limited his production and athleticism as well, which is not surprising as in the Heat’s primary lineups he is stuck playing Center which he did not like while with the Raptors. This leads us to the limitations of size with the Heat. Often Bosh is playing Center with Lebron at the 4 and any number of players rotating in at the 2 and 3 spots. With players like Roy Hibbert, Paul Gasol,Dwight Howard and Brook Lopez (Andrew Bynum and Greg Oden have a long way back from injury but could join this list) the league has some girth at the 5 position, not to mention many Power Forwards as well,  that could get in the way of LeBron’s continued search of Championship rings.

Looking Forward to 2014

These factors may play a huge role in James’ decision in 2014. Looking back, as we did following his Cavalier departure, it may be clear what led him to possibly move on from the team he helped put together. LeBron will see the need for athletic, young players to play around him as he ages, hopefully more gracefully then Wade. James will see the need for some inside muscle and defensive presence as well as shooters to space and spread the floor to open up the lane for he and the other athletic players. While many have pointed to James’ loyalty and friendship with Wade, his obvious desire to win, to get better and to be historic is much greater, just ask Cleveland. James has experience with aging teams with superstars past their prime, he has experience taking a team on his back in “Cleveland Mode” and until this year he was experiencing playing with athletic players in their prime which he seemed to embrace the most.

Over the next week we will be looking at a few teams, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat, and how they match up with the desired needs LeBron James may be seeking in the Summer of 2014. Stay Tuned.